Throughout the years Disney films, specifically those films centering around A Heroine, have been subjected to great criticisms, those criticisms being that the main female character has no power or agency. In order to keep up with the times, Disney has introduced a new type of heroine, the career woman. This career woman idea underscores most Disney films that centrally feature a female character. Disney (including Pixar) has made an effort to give their female characters important jobs or positions of power as a way of giving the audience strong female characters, even going so far as to do some rebranding of the concept of a princess, making it a diplomatic position that comes with both power and responsibility.
The Princess and the Frog: Tiana as the Career Pioneer
“If Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella exemplified the traditional Disney female as docile, beautiful objects waiting for their prince to come, then Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Meg, Mulan, and Tiana are exactly the opposite: focused [and], ambitious…” (Stover, 3).
Tiana ushered in the era of the career woman in 2009, with her ambitious aspirations of opening a high-end restaurant. She often subverts the idea that simply wishing for something to happen can make it come true, an idea perpetuated in earlier Disney films. She repeats throughout the film that “…fairytales can come true, but you gotta make ‘em happen, it all depends on you.” Tiana was a groundbreaking character in many ways, as she was the first princess of African descent, as well as the fact that her story was set in a historical period rather than “Once upon a time.” Most remarkably about her is that she is a proactive character who works endlessly, as is established at the beginning of the film, to make her fantasy a reality. When her dream is taken away from her due to being outbid on the property she intended to turn into her restaurant, she looks for alternative methods of obtaining her dream. An opportunity presented itself in the form of a frog prince, and despite finding love, she does not give up on her dream, which she achieves with the help of a supportive husband who adopts her dream, and by her side, helps her turn it into a reality, as is shown in the image.
The Rebranding of the Disney Princess
Disney’s rebranding of the princess reflects the need to give female characters high-power positions. In 2017, Disney introduced a new advertisement campaign titled “Dream Big Princess” in which they outline the qualities and duties of a princess while showing images of girls of all ages, from all backgrounds, pursuing their dreams with the fierce confidence that comes with being a princess. In this ad, Disney has effectively re-appropriated the word, which previously was equated with being spoiled and shallow, and likening it more to real-life princesses and inspiring women. Rather opposite of what it meant before, this ad now tells girls that being a princess means being brave, caring, kind, smart, and selfless. The ad can be viewed below.
A Brave New Princess
“…Brave offers a new version of the female protagonist and breaks the pattern of a princesses’ fairytales depending on a man for a happily ever after” (Garabedian, 24). Merida, the aforementioned female protagonist, is the perfect example of the rebranded princess. She breaks the mold in many ways, namely in her athleticism, daredevil acts, and rejection of, not just arranged marriage, but the concept of marriage at all. These all make for a timeless and empowering character, however, what is most intriguing about her personal growth throughout the arc of the movie is that she finally understands why her role as a princess is important and must be taken seriously. In the image shown, Merida is addressing her initial rejection of her suitors, which caused friction between her kingdom and theirs. She successfully commands the attention of the room, reunifies the kingdoms, and does away with the marriage rule, all using the diplomacy of an adult, rather than the rebellion of a teenager.
Moana: A Born Leader
In her film, Moana is raised to be the next chief of her village and embodies the strong qualities of a leader from the beginning of the movie. In fact, the opening number, Where You Are, establishes her role as the future chief and highlights the internal conflict Moana faces as a girl torn between her duty to her people and her love of exploring the sea. Throughout the remainder of the storyline, she embarks on a hero’s quest to restore the heart of Te Fiti and save her people with Maui, the strong, Herculean demigod, as her sidekick. Upon facing and empathizing with Te Ka (previously Te Fiti), shown below, she completes her quest and is able to bridge the gap between the ocean and her island and reclaim her tribe’s identity as ocean voyagers–one that was previously rejected by her cautious father–ultimately accepting her role as chief. By following her instincts, Moana exemplifies the idea of a strong-willed, brave, and fearless leader that every powerful princess should embody.
Frozen: A Tale of Two Queens
Another example of a strong-willed female is seen in the characterization of Queen Elsa in Frozen–however, her fearlessness develops later on when she becomes more confident in her abilities to lead and protect her sister. Her initial self-doubt fades away upon the realization that she controls her powers and can use them to benefit her kingdom, thus enabling her to become one of the strongest and most independent women in Disney’s recent films. She is able to carry this strength and fearlessness into her role as queen and as a role model, teaching her sister Anna the importance of marching to the beat of her own drum and following her heart. By doing so, both she and Anna become dynamic leaders that make them quintessential diplomatic and responsible queens.
Following in Elsa’s footsteps, Anna quickly learns to hold her head high and remain steadfast in her beliefs. Throughout Frozen II, she continually displays altruistic behavior by “doing the next right thing” in order to save her sister and their kingdom. Her unwavering dedication to the ones she loves serves as an ideal example of why Anna grows to become a powerful and responsible future queen. At the end of the film, Anna’s evolution into a strong and reliable diplomat is completed when Elsa abdicates her role as queen and crowns her selfless and highly capable sister, Anna, as the new Queen of Arendelle. This metamorphosis that Anna undergoes throughout the initial film and sequel proves that even queens can be powerful career-driven women.
Aladdin’s Live-Action New World
Princess Jasmine exemplifies this idea of a “rebranded princess” in the live-action Aladdin film by being the first classic Disney princess to be rewritten into a more powerful modern role. In both the animated and live-action versions, Jasmine falls in love with Aladdin and is unable to marry him due to a law that forbids royals to marry commoners. However, while Jasmine was powerless and submissive in the animated version and had to convince her father, the Sultan, to change the law for her to marry Aladdin, she is instead made Sultan and able to change the law herself in the live-action version. Although she has always been a headstrong, opinionated princess, the “rebranded” version of the film allows Jasmine to instate actionable change and ensure her voice is heard, as shown by the inclusion of her own ballad where she states that she “won’t go speechless” (Campione, 2019). Her personality is also developed to include an interest in geography and politics, showcasing her as the ideal successor to the crown and giving her an equal place beside her father.
Newsies Creates Something from Nothing
A stunning example of Disney’s new career woman, although not a princess, is Katherine Plumber in the stage adaptation of the cult-classic film Newsies. Like with Princess Jasmine in the live-action adaptation of Aladdin, the creators saw this as an opportunity to create a strong woman. Unlike Jasmine, however, the character Katherine did not exist prior to the film being adapted for the stage. In the original film, which was released in 1992, the main character, Jack, had a love interest as an afterthought who had little impact or effect on the plot of the film. Katherine was created to be a strong presence that could operate on the same level as Jack, as she command’s his and the audience’s attention and is instrumental in the plot. In the image shown, Kathrine, who is reporting on the Newsboys’ strike of 1899, shows their successful article which features her name on the byline.
Big Hero 6, Zootopia, and the Animated Non-Princess
Some of the newest Disney films also provide career women with unique power and talent who are not princesses. In the film Big Hero 6, the characters Honey Lemon, and Gogo Tomago are introduced. They are both women in STEM careers who are immensely passionate about what they do. Honey is a chemical engineer and Gogo is an industrial designer and mechanical engineer. The film’s plot sees them adapt their skills and raw materials to become superheroes, as is shown in the image.
Another strong female character from a recent Disney film is Judy Hopps, from the film Zootopia. The universe in which this story takes place is populated by anthropomorphized mammals, and Judy Hopps, as one might guess from her name, is a rabbit. Despite her small size, and meek nature, she is determined to become the first rabbit police officer that Zootopia has ever seen, as is shown in the image. Her intense determination and passion for her job are the driving forces in the film, and she unravels an unsavory conspiracy and saves the day, all because of her devotion to serving justice properly.
The Old Ways: Female Empowerment as Evil
In the past, Disney’s idea of a high-power career woman was depicted as evil. This idea ultimately manifested itself in the form of the fashion powerhouse, Cruella de Vil, who tried to make a living off skinning exotic animals and puppies to create elusive fur coats. In addition, the Evil Queen was portrayed as a vain ruler who was determined to be the “fairest one of all”, and wanted to stop at nothing to ensure her prestige. While their villainesses are embellished with over-the-top looks, Disney has since branched out and given these same “campy” appearances to Queen Elsa; her transformation in “Let It Go” from “reserved monarch to camp witch [places] her in a long line of over-the-top magical women in Disney history” (Duffy, 2020). By characterizing Elsa as a “camp queen”–a term usually reserved for her powerful and independent villainess counterparts–Disney shows their willingness to make all of their female protagonists women of power and agency. Since undergoing their rebrand, they are now able to portray their heroines as selfless, kind, and compassionate, all while exemplifying what it means to be independent and career-oriented powerhouses.
How Far We’ll Go
Overall, Disney has actively committed to portraying their female characters and princesses as powerful, independent, and strong-willed individuals. This shift, coupled with their “Dream Big, Princess” campaign, has created the perfect launchpad for Disney to explore and change the rhetoric surrounding female role models in their films, thus allowing for the empowerment of their audience. While previous films were filled with meek damsels-in-distress, Disney was able to eloquently rebrand their idea of women in power, thus creating role models that will inspire their viewers for years to come.
Campione, K. (2019). Jasmine Finds Her Voice. 425, 32–34. Retrieved July 01, 2020, from http://web.a.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=0e384059-2906-40eb-8799-e962f8cd2467%40sessionmgr4007
Duffy, L. (2020). From the Evil Queen to Elsa: Camp Witches in Disney Films. Retrieved July 01, 2020, from https://framescinemajournal.com/article/from-the-evil-queen-to-elsa-camp-witches-in-disney-films/
Garabedian, J. (2014-2015). Animating Gender Roles: How Disney is Redefining the Modern Princess. James Madison Undergraduate Research Journal, 2(1), 21-25. Retrieved July 01, 2020, from https://commons.lib.jmu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://scholar.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1009&context=jmurj
Stover, C. (2013). Damsels and Heroines: The Conundrum of the Post-Feminist Disney Princess. LUX: A Journal of Transdisciplinary Writing and Research from Claremont Graduate University, 2(1), 29th ser. Retrieved July 1, 2020, from https://scholarship.claremont.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1028&context=lux